by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Sept. 6, 2004.
There are few documented examples of the fake or forged autobiography, although the genre probably has a long, secret history. Its most famous practitioner was Clifford Irving, who, in 1971, tried to publish the tell-all memoirs of Howard Hughes without telling Hughes. Irving’s manuscript began with a brazen announcement that “more lies have been printed and told about me than about any living man” and that it was time for the “elusive, often painful truth.” Irving made the mistake of releasing his manuscript while Hughes was still alive. Nothing kills an autobiography like a flat-out denial by the author.
In 1979, the Russian-émigré musicologist Solomon Volkov published “Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich as Related to and Edited by Solomon Volkov.” It was a grippingly embittered monologue by the greatest of Soviet composers, denouncing Communism and chronicling a life lived in fear. In retrospect, something about the first page should have set off alarms. Like Irving’s Hughes, Volkov’s Shostakovich seems to protest too much. “Others will write about us,” he says. “And naturally they’ll lie through their teeth.” This book would “speak the truth about the past”; “reminisce . . . only in the name of truth”; “try to tell only the truth.”
The book arrived with impressive credentials. According to Volkov, each chapter had been read and signed by Shostakovich, who had died in 1975. Irving never met Hughes, but Volkov was acquainted with Shostakovich, and was known to have interviewed him. A year after publication, though, “Testimony” hit a snag. The American scholar Laurel Fay pointed out that seven of the eight chapters began with word-for-word quotations from older Shostakovich essays. Given that these pages bore Shostakovich’s signature, it looked as if Volkov might have obtained the composer’s approval under false pretenses — perhaps by showing him an innocuous collection of previously published material, then weaving the signed pages into a monologue of his own invention. Volkov never answered these charges, but other writers stepped in to defend him. The most persuasive argument, which I repeated in this magazine in 2000, was that Fay had found no borrowings on the first page of Chapter 1, which proclaimed the truth of the very book that was in the reader’s hands.
A couple of years ago, Fay got hold of a copy of the Russian typescript of “Testimony.” She has now reported her findings in Malcolm Hamrick Brown’s new anthology, “A Shostakovich Casebook” (Indiana). There is no signature on the first page, it turns out; that claim was something other than the truth. Instead, there is a signature on the third page, which perfectly overlaps with a bland essay that Shostakovich published in 1966. Fay subjects the entire document to Sherlockian scrutiny, noting that a couple of the recycled pages had been doctored to remove datable references. A mention of the Chekhov centenary — “I am sincerely happy that the hundredth anniversary of his birth is attracting anew to him the attention of all progressive humanity” — disappears under correction tape. The American publishers could not easily check back issues of Literaturnaia Gazeta, where this statement originally appeared, but they might have noticed that a man allegedly interviewed in the seventies was suddenly speaking from the year 1960.
Recently, at a Shostakovich festival at Bard College, Fay spoke once more about “Testimony,” which Limelight Editions has ill-advisedly reissued in a twenty-fifth-anniversary edition. She added new evidence to her suggestion that “Testimony” is a hoax: a memo, drafted by Shostakovich’s friend Isaak Glikman shortly after “Testimony” was published, records Shostakovich, in the last months of his life, railing against the business of writing memoirs. Shostakovich is also quoted as saying, “What sort of a person is this Solomon Volkov?” The words hung in the air as Fay repeated them. You could almost hear the fear germinating in Shostakovich’s harried mind: this Volkov character is hatching something. Glikman, by the way, is an unimpeachable witness, whose writings have been cited by Volkov’s defenders and detractors alike.
Fay leaves little doubt that Shostakovich saw nothing of “Testimony” beyond the eight pages he signed. (I can imagine another, less likely scenario: the composer read the manuscript and refused to grant his approval, whereupon Volkov obtained the signatures by subterfuge.) Whether the composer made any of the statements attributed to him in Volkov’s book is a trickier question. As Fay readily admits, many of the anecdotes and opinions have been corroborated by other sources; Volkov may have heard some from the composer, others from his friends. The musicologist Lev Lebedinsky, who liked to say that Shostakovich’s symphonies were secret diatribes against the Soviet system, has been suggested as a secondary ghostwriter. It could well be that the bulk of the manuscript consists of things that Shostakovich did say at one time or another, in so many words. Some have shrugged their shoulders over the entire affair, saying that, yes, some hanky-panky went on, but that it doesn’t matter in the end, because Volkov told little lies in order to convey a larger truth about Soviet music.
I don’t buy that argument. It isn’t enough for the memoirs of a major artist to have an ambience of authenticity. A book that subjected Picasso or Joyce to such manipulations would never have made it to publication. For some reason, though, music is treated as a childish realm in which fables serve as well as facts. Russian composers seem especially vulnerable to urban legends, as if facts mattered even less behind the old Iron Curtain. To dismiss Fay’s evidence is to disregard a great artist’s right to speak in his own voice. If Shostakovich had known what was going to be printed under his name, he might have hated Volkov with a passion that not even Joseph Stalin inspired in him.
For years, Volkov’s book provoked nonsensically polarized arguments over whether Shostakovich was a Party ideologue or an anti-Communist dissident. The composer had long served as a caricature of Soviet nationalism; Volkov and his acolytes had now made him a puppet for the other side. The most effective “Volkovian” interpreter was Ian MacDonald, the author of a book entitled “The New Shostakovich,” who, sadly, committed suicide last year. Perhaps the so-called “Shostakovich Wars” are ready to end, and a more evenhanded assessment can begin. The Bard festival, two weekends of concerts in which Shostakovich was heard along with twenty other Soviet composers, offered a sometimes confusing picture, but there was no doubt of the composer’s vital appeal. Every performance at the splendid new Fisher Center was packed, and even 10 a.m. panels drew crowds.
In conjunction with the festival, Fay edited another new collection, entitled “Shostakovich and His World” (Princeton), which contains an illuminating essay by Leonid Maximenkov on the composer’s relationship with Stalin. Stalin knew Shostakovich primarily as a film composer, and admired him on that count. He famously disliked Shostakovich’s opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” which was denounced in Pravda in January of 1936. But there was no personal animus, as Volkov claims. The Pravda editorial spearheaded an attack on modernist tendencies which had been in preparation for months. As one Pravda editor remarked, the government targeted Shostakovich not because he was the worst offender but because he was deemed “worth saving.” Transcripts of a meeting at the Kremlin show that Stalin simply wanted Shostakovich to stop writing “rebuses and riddles” and create a “clear mass art.” Stalin was probably more interested in intelligence reports on what other cultural figures were saying. Those reports have been published in Russia, and they are deeply chilling. Two check marks were placed next to the name Abram Lezhnev, who denounced Pravda’s Nazi-style tactics. He was shot in 1938.
When the Pravda editorial appeared, Shostakovich was starting work on the final movement of his Fourth Symphony. On the opening weekend of the Bard festival, Leon Botstein, a co-director of the event and the president of the college, conducted the American Symphony Orchestra in a performance of the Fourth; the tempos were rigid, but the effect was tremendous. The first two movements evoke a surreal landscape in which the late-Romantic symphony seems to have collapsed on itself, its grand themes supplanted by trivial material. The clobbered, staggering tone persists through much of the finale. Then, several minutes before the end, cellos and basses take up a low, chattering figure borrowed from Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony, and an epiphany seems at hand. Soviet listeners would have expected a pageant of triumph after the struggle.
But when the bombastic major chords arrive they make a ghastly sound. The phalanx of brass seems to split apart and collide violently. As the musicologist Richard Taruskin has pointed out, there is a strong resemblance to the Gloria of Stravinsky’s “Oedipus Rex,” in which Jocasta is hailed as the queen of a “disease-ridden Thebes.” After the aborted resurrection, a long recessional ensues, taking up two hundred and thirty-five dismal, monotonous bars. Nothing in music is quite as scary as this ending, for its aesthetic of catastrophe was tantamount to suicide. If the première of the Fourth had gone ahead as scheduled, in the fall of 1936, the composer might have met the same fate as Abram Lezhnev. At the last minute, however, he withdrew the symphony. In its place, he produced the angrily affirmative Fifth, and bought another forty years of life. Shostakovich’s urge to defy authority was always tempered by an instinct for survival.
The Fourth Symphony was the only giant slab of Shostakovichian oratory on the festival’s opening weekend. What we got, for the most part, was a refreshing emphasis on the sly, comic Shostakovich—the fidgety, neurotic, soccer-loving genius who had somehow retained his deadpan sense of humor even as Stalin’s terrors unfolded around him. Zuill Bailey and Simone Dinnerstein gave a deeply felt, freely flowing performance of the 1934 Cello Sonata, in which Shostakovich simplified his language without help from Pravda. Melvin Chen gave a raw, roaring account of the First Piano Sonata. The Bard Festival Quartet avoided the usual doom-and-gloom in the Eleventh Quartet, finding an elusive balance of sweetness and sadness.
Best of all were two Shostakovich theatre events, presented as part of Bard’s SummerScape series. One was Francesca Zambello’s production of Shostakovich’s 1959 operetta-musical “Moskva: Cheryomushki,” or “Cherry Tree Towers,” which has long had a dull reputation but came to life here as a witty, goofy, even touching affair. The plot, mildly subversive in its mention of Communist Party corruption, follows the love lives of young Soviets who are scrambling for apartments in a horrible new high-rise. The score is infested with satires and self-quotations, including a reprise of Shostakovich’s greatest hit, the “Song of the Counterplan,” which Stalin had mentioned approvingly in 1936. Lauren Skuce and Jonathan Hays were graceful and vivid in the romantic leads, but the show belonged to two Russian speakers—Andrei Antonov, as the gleefully corrupt superintendent, and Makvala Kasrashvili, wielding her luxurious soprano to comic effect in the role of the gold-digger Vava. They tore up the stage with the joy of performers liberated from convention.
The other Shostakovich show of the summer was “The Nose,” based on Gogol’s absurdist tale. Zambello again directed, creating a simulacrum of early radical Soviet theatre, with its abstract designs and madcap movement. A large cast, Antonov and Kasrashvili among them, performed with zany high spirits. Instead of pondering the music, these singers relished its pleasures and its dangers, its precarious balance between profundity and kitsch, its love of life and its yen for death. An epigram of Karl Kraus’s flashed through my mind: “You don’t even live once.”